UChicago Expands IME to School of Molecular Engineering with $100 Million from Pritzkers

UChicago is opening the nation’s first school of molecular engineering.


The William Eckhardt Research Center, which houses the Institute for Molecular Engineering.

By Emma Dyer, Co-Editor-in-Chief ('20-'21)

The University of Chicago will transform the Institute of Molecular Engineering (IME) into a graduate school of molecular engineering, the University announced Tuesday morning. The school, which will open immediately at the existing site of the IME in Eckhardt Research Center, will be the first school in the country dedicated to the field of molecular engineering.

The school, newly named the Pritzker Molecular Engineering (PME), is established with a new donation of $75 million from the Pritzker Foundation, in addition to $25 million the Pritzkers had granted the IME earlier. While the PME will at present not operate much differently from the IME, the grant from the Pritzkers will allow the University to rapidly expand the school’s faculty and resources in the coming years.

The IME is currently led by 28 faculty and serves 91 undergraduate students, 134 graduate students, and 75 postdoctoral fellows. The PME will continue to offer a Ph.D. program in molecular engineering and will expand current undergraduate molecular engineering course offerings. The University is “in early planning stages for another science facility” and estimates that the number of molecular engineering faculty will double in the next 10 years, according to spokesperson Jeremy Manier.

It will be the University’s eighth professional school, and the latest one to open since the University founded the Harris School of Public Policy in 1988. The PME will be the second school at the University named after the Pritzker family: The University renamed its medical school in 1968 also following a donation from the Pritzkers.

The PME will also establish a new partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago. This will include programming like college counseling and research opportunities, designed to extend the PME’s resources to STEM–interested students enrolled in City Colleges.

Newly-inaugurated Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press release that the partnership with City Colleges “will also inspire students from across the city to take the next step in building the skills they need for rewarding careers.” UChicago and City Colleges of Chicago hope that this program will better prepare City College students and inspire them to transfer into a four-year STEM degree program.

Founding Director of the IME and Deputy Laboratory Director for Science at Argonne National Laboratory Matthew Tirrell will serve as the director and dean of the PME. Tirrell believes the expansion will continue to foster the University’s unique intersecting areas of study within molecular engineering.

Tirrell, who has been at the IME since its founding in 2011, runs a lab whose research embodies the diversity of applications molecular engineering can have across disciplines. The Tirrell lab studies molecular interactions and works on creating self-assembled nanomaterials that may be used for creating better experimental procedures for scientists working at a bench, increasing the accuracy and detection sensitivity of medical diagnostics, and aiding the development of personalized medicine techniques including targeted cancer therapeutics.

The school will foster interdisciplinary research that will provide resources for research to be taken to the market. In the past eight years, the IME has spent $23.1 million on research per year, leading to 69 invention disclosures and the creation of six companies. Projects have focused on sustainable energy, immunotherapy-based approaches to cancer, and secure communication networks, according to the University’s announcement. The school will expand upon the IME’s five research themes: arts, sciences, and technology; immuno-engineering; water and energy; quantum engineering; and autonomous materials.

Classes offered by the PME will continue to have a specific focus to molecular engineering, following themes aligning with the three tracks offered to undergraduates: chemical and soft materials, biology, and quantum. The PME will not expand to include traditional engineering fields, but will serve “to more effectively address issues that require integrated, convergent approaches,” the University said in their announcement.

The PME is the latest in a series of expansions the University has made in the field of molecular engineering. In 2017, the University launched the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a collaboration among researchers across Chicago and neighboring regions. Other universities have recently joined the collaboration, including the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University.